Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
15 May 2000

How money buys better schooling

Francis Beckett asks why, if funding levels make no difference, private schools spend so much

By Francis Beckett

Maybe Britain is going to change quite quickly from a class-ridden society where power, influence and wealth are passed from father to son, and occasionally from mother to daughter. But if it doesn’t – and the signs are that it won’t – then the other day I probably addressed a future prime minister.

He or she was among the 30 intelligent, knowledgeable young men and women at the Oxford University Labour Club who listened politely to my views about new Labour’s education policy, and asked some very hard questions. Since 1945, we have had 11 prime ministers, and eight of them were Oxford graduates. The other three (Churchill, Callaghan and Major) were not graduates.

If Oxford graduates continue to run the country, so will fee-charging schools. A stunning 53 per cent of Oxford under- graduates come from the 7 per cent of the population who attend fee-charging schools.

Oxford is just the tip of the iceberg. That 7 per cent of the population get 48 per cent of the places at Britain’s top five universities (Cambridge, Oxford, the London School of Economics, Imperial College, London, and University College London), according to recent figures from the Sutton Trust. If you take the top 13 universities, then that 7 per cent get 39 per cent of the places. Take all universities, and the 7 per cent get a quarter of the places.

In other words, the private sector’s share decreases only as the prestige of the universities decreases. And overall, more than nine out of ten fee-charging school products go on to higher education, according to the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS).

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Is this because crusty old Etonian admissions tutors want to populate their universities with people of their own class? Probably not to any great extent, though such people do exist. Is it because admissions procedures favour people from fee-charging schools? Partly, but not enough to explain the phenomenon. The main reason is that the rich can buy for their children a superior education – not because the schools and the teachers have any of the magical qualities sometimes claimed for them, but because money buys all the things, such as small classes and spanking new buildings, that governments like to claim will make no difference to the education of the poor.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

Everybody knows that the private sector is better off. But the sheer scale of the difference between state and private is not often appreciated. According to figures just published by ISIS, the private sector has a ratio of one teacher to every 12 pupils. In state schools, the ratio is one teacher to 19 pupils. (Most research on class size – which is not, admittedly, the same as pupil-teacher ratio – suggests that it needs to go below 15 to make a real difference. That, in the newly fashionable jargon, is the “tipping point”.) Last year, private schools spent an average of £767 per pupil on new and improved buildings and equipment. There is no equivalent figure published for state school pupils; but on the figures available, you can work it out: it’s just £96. The state-school figures will be better this year, with the welcome cash injection that ministers have recently announced, but fee-charging schools will still be spending at least six times as much as state schools.

“Fees”, says ISIS, “are the price parents pay for generous staffing as well as updated facilities.” Average fees are up 6.3 per cent this year to £6,855 a year. The Department for Education gives a figure of £3,096 for state schools.

Furthermore, many fee-charging schools have access to big sums in foundation grants – often given to them on the basis that they were there to educate the poorest children in the area. Bizarrely, eight out of ten of the schools are registered charities.

Critics of the state sector argue that universities now favour private-sector pupils more than ever because standards in the comprehensives have fallen so low. In a sense, they are right – but it has nothing to do with teaching methods or Marxist teachers or some inherent weakness in the comprehensive system or any of the other fanciful explanations favoured by the Daily Telegraph. The fee-charging schools have been steadily improving their pupil-teacher ratios, their equipment and their buildings for the past 20 years – at the very time when growth in spending on state schools has been more or less at a standstill. This was partly because the people running the country – Tory ministers, senior civil servants – insisted that higher spending and smaller classes would make no difference to educational quality, while sending their own children to schools that offered exactly those advantages.

Jack Straw, when he was Labour’s shadow education spokesman, promised to make state schools so good that only a snob would want to pay. We have some way to go. The numbers of children in fee-charging schools has increased in 13 of the past 18 years.

I will be accused of peddling “the politics of envy”. But I have no objection to one family having a better car than another, or a bigger house in a posher area (though I admit to a preference that people should not live in slums). If one person drinks the best wines, and another has to get by on half a pint of ale, I don’t think that indicates a fundamental sickness in society.

But when the rich can buy for their children an education that perpetuates membership of the ruling elite; that takes them to the universities from which our political, cultural and business leaders are largely drawn; that segregates them in their formative years from the mass of their future fellow citizens, isn’t it time for self-proclaimed meritocrats such as Tony Blair to do something about it?